A data location broker company called SafeGraph says it will no longer sell the location data of groups of people visiting Planned Parenthood and other clinics that provide abortions following a recent Vice report. Purchasers of that data previously could reportedly tell where visitors to those clinics came from, how long they stayed at the clinic and where they went after.
SafeGraph on Tuesday said it decided to reverse course in part due to news of a leaked initial draft majority opinion which shows the U.S. Supreme Court’s apparent interest in striking down Roe v Wade, a titanic move that would effectively make abortion illegal in many states.
“In light of potential federal changes in family planning access, we’re removing Patterns data for locations classified as NAICS code 621410 (‘Family Planning Centers’) from our self-serve “shop” and API to curtail any potential misuse of its data,” SafeGraph wrote on its website.
In an interview with Gizmodo, a SafeGraph spokesperson said the company made the decision based partly on the “polarizing” nature of the data and in response to what he sees as “misinformation” surrounding how their data can be used.
“We’re confident the data does not pose any privacy or security risk to individuals and have had no reports of individuals or parties using our data maliciously,” the company spokesperson said. “But since this is a very polarizing and sensitive topic, it makes sense for us to proactively suspend access to our aggregated data related to family planning centers to unknown users.”
Controversy around SafeGraph’s data comes as activists and lawmakers warn of the potential weaponizing of personal data to track down women seeking abortions in a post Roe v Wade America. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden commented on the dark possibility of anti-abortion vigilantes using data to hunt people down in a recent interview with Gizmodo.
“If the Supreme Court follows through and overturns Roe, every digital record—from web searches, to phone records and app data—will be weaponized in Republican states as a way to control women’s bodies,” Wyden told Gizmodo. “The simple act of searching for ‘pregnancy test’ could cause a woman to be stalked, harassed and attacked.”
SafeGraph, whose finances reportedly include Peter Thiel and a former Saudi Arabian intelligence head, aggregates data it collects from phone apps and sells it. The company assures users all of its data is anonymized, though privacy experts at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and elsewhere point out it’s “trivially easy” to link that type of data with real-world identities.
Despite those concerns, SafeGraph reiterated to Gizmodo their confidence in the company’s ability to keep data anonymous.
“We’ve always considered privacy our first priority and our data cannot be de-anonymized to identify individuals,” the spokesperson said. “I can only speak for SafeGraph but we’ve never encountered anyone who has used our data to identify an individual, despite tens of thousands of the world’s best data scientists and researchers analyzing our data over the past few years. We’re confident our data protects the identity of individuals.”
There’s already evidence of data being used to target abortion seekers. Back in 2017, a Mississippi woman was reportedly charged with second-degree murder after prosecutors were able to use her online search results for abortion pills as a motive following a failed pregnancy. Two years prior to that, Indiana prosecutors used a woman’s phone messages around alleged online purchases of abortion pills as part of a case that resulted in the woman being found guilty of feticide and child neglect.
SafeGraph expressed reservations around its decision to stop selling abortion-related data, claiming doing so may negatively impact researchers.
“Taking away this data will impact many academics that want to study this topic (like understanding the impact of legislation on family planning visits),” the company said. “We acknowledge that our decision to take down Patterns for family planning centers could negatively impact this valuable research, but we think this is the right decision given the current climate.”
“Making places data convenient and accessible via self serve has the drawback that we aren’t able to fully control who buys the data,” Barry said. “The benefit is that it allows our data to quickly get into the hands of researchers doing very important work.”